Myth: paid time off cures burnout

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In the past twelve months, the global media has done an exceptional job of glorifying companies that have gifted their employees with paid time off (PTO) to curb burnout and improve mental health and wellbeing. Business leaders who have not yet followed suit have surely felt the urge to, as their peers and role models flaunt their generous gestures and press mentions.

Companies giving bonus PTO
2020-2021 examples. List not exhaustive.

References: Forbes (1) (2) (3), Human Resource Executive (1) (2) (3) (4) (5) (6), CEO Magazine, CNBC (1) (2) (3), BBC (1) (2), The Australian, Inc., CNN (1) (2), GitLab, KGW8, Silicon Republic, HR Dive, Human Resource Executive , Human Resources Director

What the evidence says

PTO can set the tone for a more balanced and healthier workplace, but it is a band-aid for burnout, not a cure. Burnout is a multifaceted, multidimensional issue that can rarely be solved with short bursts of time off work - employer-funded or otherwise.

Definition of burnout

“Burnout refers to the physical and emotional erosion that an employee can experience when they feel regularly unsatisfied, powerless and overwhelmed at work.” It is “an occupational phenomenon… resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.

Causes of burnout

Originally attributed to only work factors, there are now multiple studies attributing burnout to both work and personality factors. These tables share examples of work and personality factors which can contribute to burnout.

Personality Risk Factors

References: Journal of Clinical Nursing, Psychiatry Research, Burnout for experts, Occupational Medicine, Frontiers in Psychology, The Journal of Social Psychology, Psychology Research and Behavior Management, Psychiatry Research, Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, International Journal of Nursing Studies, Electronic Theses and Dissertations, Journal of Humanistic Psychology, Nursing Economics, Journal of Health Services Research and Policy, European Journal of Oncology Nursing, Journal of Personality, Psychology Today, Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development

Reducing burnout

The phenomenon of burnout is commonly a sign of deeply entrenched issues in the workplace. Until every risk factor is addressed, and sustainable, supportive and protective systems put in place, any claim that burnout has been cured will likely be one-dimensional and premature.

References: Yonsei Medical Journal, International Review of Management and Marketing, The Urban Review, Infinite Potential, Clinical Practice and Epidemiology in Mental Health

The “disconnect disconnect”

Last year, Deloitte published a deep dive into the disconnect between time-off policies and the culture around using them. Despite generous and sometimes unlimited vacation policies, workers are resisting taking time off to disconnect, hence Deloitte’s term, the “disconnect disconnect”.

Reasons cited include “the inability to travel, difficulty justifying time off in a work-from-home environment, and especially, fear of taking time off in an unstable job market”. Deloitte also blamed a constantly connected, “work martyr culture”.

Rather than focus on random PTO, Deloitte suggested employers should instead put the “P” back in PTO, in terms of permission, prioritisation and persistence in ongoing campaigns to encourage and empower workers to regularly rest and recharge.

Download our report

This post is an excerpt from our evidence-based report: 5 myths of employee wellbeing. To discover the other four myths in our report, please click here.


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For more information about how Sonder can help you rethink your workplace support, we invite you to contact us here.

About Sonder

Sonder is an Active Care technology company that helps organisations improve the wellbeing of their people so they perform at their best. Our mobile app provides immediate, 24/7 support from a team of safety, medical, and mental health professionals - plus onsite help for time-sensitive scenarios. Accredited by the Australian Council on Healthcare Standards (ACHS), our platform gives leaders the insights they need to act on tomorrow's wellbeing challenges today.

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